We Christians wrestle. We are Israelites, which means people who wrestle with God. For us, this is metaphorical. We do not literally try to get God in a choke hold or pin Him on a mat.
But for Jacob, it was literal. God came in the form of a man. He seems to have appeared out of nowhere. We are not told how the wrestling started. As far as we can tell from the text, this strange Man simply came up to Jacob and attacked him without a single word.
So they wrestled all night. That is a long wrestling match! Jacob was a strong man who once singlehandedly rolled away a large stone that covered a well. He also must have had tremendous endurance to go on wrestling all night with this mysterious Man.
The mysterious Man, because He is really God, has no limit to His endurance. He could keep going on and on if He wanted to. The very fact that He did not simply overcome Jacob in a few seconds means that God was holding back. He did not use His full power to win the match. He further demonstrated His superiority by touching Jacob’s hip and throwing it out of socket. A mere touch was all that was required to dislocate or disable or even kill.
Yet God, because He limited His power, did not overpower Jacob. Even after He dislocated Jacob’s hip, God said to Jacob, “Let me go.” Of course, God could exert His full power at any time to fling Jacob away, yet He did not. He only used a small portion of His strength to fight Jacob.
We see a hint here of the later state of humiliation of the Son of God. God became flesh and dwelt among us, and did not use His full power. Now and then He showed glimpses, performing miracles that hinted at His almighty nature. Yet He allowed Himself to be weak. In the same way, in Genesis 32, God was a wrestler who was not as strong as He could have been.
For us, God also becomes a wrestler. Through faith, we are also Israelites, wrestlers with God. Sometimes, God seems to attack us out of nowhere. These attacks can take different forms: illness, loss of a job, financial hardship, strife with friends or spouse or children, and many other kinds of hardship.
Whether God sends these things Himself or uses another through whom it comes is not an important question. We face difficulty, and God allows or sends it, when He could prevent it. All things happen according to His control. Therefore, the attack is from God, at least indirectly.
Does God hate us? No, of course not. Yet He sends tribulations for His own reasons. His reasons are wise, and they are loving, even though it may feel like the opposite is true at the time.
From our perspective, we seem to be going along nicely in our Christian walk. We love God and He loves us, and we may feel happy and at peace. Then all of a sudden, Wham! God pins us to the mat. It hurts, and it is shocking.
In the same way, Jacob had experienced great blessing from God. He had eleven sons with a twelfth on the way. He had huge herds of sheep, where years earlier he had been a lonely fugitive with nothing. God had appeared to Jacob and promised him blessing, and had delivered on that promise abundantly. Then, Wham! Jacob was suddenly alone again, fighting against God all night long.
If Jacob, or we, thought that our Christian life would be smooth sailing from here on out, then we were mistaken. God will not shield us from all troubles. In fact, He becomes the one who wrestles against us.
So we wrestle with a God who hides Himself. It is not that there is more than one God, of course, but only that the same God approaches us in different ways. Sometimes He is a God who does not share with us all of His reasons and motives. For Jacob, He was a shadowy figure in the night who never fully explained what He was doing there, and who did not even reveal His Name.
We need to get it firmly in our minds that He loves us for the times when the wrestling will be difficult for us. He is a loving Father, although He must discipline us. All children should remember that their father loves them when the discipline happens. Although the love of earthly fathers is imperfect or worse, the heavenly Father has no flaws in His love. Although this may lead to confusion when He wrestles with us, we should trust His promises of love.
Sometimes He wants to strengthen, test, or reveal our faith, as in the story of the Canaanite woman. Christ wrestled against her by treating her quite rudely. He seemed to reject her. That seemed out of character for the always-compassionate Savior. Yet His hidden intention was to vindicate her faith and set her as an example for all time in the Holy Scriptures.
Sometimes He wants to prune us to produce more fruit. In this way, a gardener may trim branches so that they become more productive. But when you are the branches being cut, it hurts.
Sometimes we do not know why God does things. Actually, we seldom if ever know why. Although we may guess why God is wrestling with us, He is as close-mouthed with us as He was with Jacob. We do not know for sure why He does what He does except for those things He reveals in Scripture. This makes it difficult for us. If a doctor says, “I need to give you an injection, and it will hurt,” then we more patiently bear the pin prick. But when God does not tell us specifically why, then we must have strong faith.
By faith, we know that He is not intending to destroy us. When He has us in a fearsome headlock, so to speak, our faith is tested more. It feels sometimes like He is against us, as it surely felt with Jacob.
He is not trying to destroy us. If that was what He wanted, then He could do that easily enough in a few moments. He could simply touch us with His power, and far more than our hip would be set out of joint. If God hated us and wanted to destroy us, what hope would there be? Then we might as well eat, drink, and be merry, and give no thought to the commandments or worship, because any day now God the Destroyer would annihilate us, so we might as well enjoy what we can before our destruction.
But that is not the case. Far from it. There is proof enough of His love at Golgotha. There is proof enough in the Font. There is proof enough in the Sacrament of the Altar. There is proof enough in the kindly word of Absolution, and in the preaching of the Gospel.
For God did wrestle once in earnest. Once, He used His full power to attack a Man. He turned His destroying touch in its unleashed fury upon that Man. The greatest Son of Jacob, the Man who is all Israel in one, Him God destroyed upon the Cross. Christ wrestled with God during the day that turned dark as night. But God pulled no punches then. He set Himself against His own Son. Although the Father loved His Son more than we can imagine, He attacked Him with savage fury.
Why did Christ wrestle against the Father? In order to win for us a blessing. That blessing is life and salvation and forgiveness. Christ held on, even through the grave. He held on until He rolled away the stone from the grave, and opened a wellspring of resurrection and life for us.
As we wrestle with God in this life, we will follow the same path. The blessing is already ours in Christ, so we are not earning anything. Yet we must wrestle because that is the path of the Son of God. We are privileged to follow the same path because it shows that the Father is treating us like His beloved Son. In the same way He treated Jacob and all the patriarchs and saints of old.
So we wrestle because that is what the Christian life is like.
Especially in Lent, we remember that our life is a struggle.
We wrestle with God in prayer. We ask, and sometimes He says no. Sometimes, He lets tribulations continue far longer than we think necessary. Yet we hold on, begging and clinging to Him. We pray, and never give up.
In Lent, we can turn our eyes to the Garden of Gethsemane. See how our dear Lord prayed in earnest, with loud cries and tears. He knows sorrow. He knows what it is to persevere when sorrow overwhelms your soul.
In Lent, we also wrestle with Him in repentance. Sometimes the struggle is more between the sinful flesh and the new Adam in us. We fight against our own sin, often losing but never giving up. In the end, we seek a blessing from God – His Word of Absolution, and He does not fail to give it. There He does not wrestle to withhold the Word, but willingly speaks the blessing.
We wrestle in Lent for faith – to cling to God even though He seems to wrestle against us. We struggle to continue in spite of the wounds God gives us. Jacob’s dislocated hip might have been a good excuse to stop wrestling, but he did not take that excuse. He clung to the Man to the end, no matter what. May God give us endurance to continue fighting on, even when wounds and sorrows might compel us to give up.
And sometimes we realize that the One we wrestle with is also the Man who faced the deepest darkness, who understands our weakness, who knows what it is to suffer terribly. Although He wrestles against us, He wants us to win. He wants us to never let go of Him until the eternal day dawns in which there is neither wrestling nor pain.
In His Name. Amen.
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